Venturing into Sri Lanka – Part 4

One of the outdoor activities that can be done in Sri Lanka is white water rafting and the place for it will be Kitulgala. And so the plan was to go rafting in Kitulgala after Ella then spending the night in Dalhousie for the night climb to Adam’s Peak.

When Sara and I started planning the trip we considered the option of renting a car with a driver throughout the whole week to spare ourselves the hassle of public transport. And since doing so is a very common thing in Sri Lanka, we thought we might be able to get a good deal but unfortunately we didn’t! The guy I contacted based on a friend’s recommendation asked for an amount that summed up to the overall expenses of the trip! I tried to bargain with him but couldn’t reach a satisfactory deal so after a week or so of negotiations and changing itineraries, we didn’t use his services and decided to take the whole transportation segment day in day out.

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Ella

Now, Kitulgala is an easy 4+ hours’ drive from Ella due to the nature of the winding roads in the Hill Country of central Sri Lanka. And unfortunately, that area is not easily connected via buses so it takes longer to go from one place to another using public transport. Hence, to save us the weariness of taking maybe 3 buses to go to Kitulagla from Ella, not mentioning the need to wake up like really early, we rented a taxi which, without a doubt, was 10 times what we would have paid for the bus.

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Devon Falls

We took off after having breakfast in town and our driver was silent, he didn’t say a word. We tried to open a conversation with him but he looked like he didn’t speak English or maybe he wasn’t interested! We asked if we can turn the radio on, to break the silence, but it was broken so more silence followed. He even made a big fuss when I asked him to turn around so we can stop at this waterfall that passed us by without him asking us if we wanted to stop. And this is how it went, a silent drive all the way to Kitulgala. No tips for you buddy!! And yeah, taxi drivers expect you to tip them after paying the fare! Tips and fares are not mutually exclusive to them 😀

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St. Clair’s Falls

When we reached Kitulgala, I tried to find a rafting place that Expat Panda recommended to me but couldn’t so we simply picked one randomly. The whole length of the street is full of rafting huts so if you are not booked in advance, no problem at all! Just pop up at one of the agencies and you will be going rafting on the spot.

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Kelani Ganga River – Kitulgala

That was my first time ever to go rafting; I was both excited and worried as I always felt every time I did something for the first time. We booked ourselves a 5 km rafting adventure with 3 fast rapids and it was super cool! Oh God it was so much fun, I LOVED it that I wished we had gone for the 8 km one but we didn’t have the time for it unfortunately. It was only Sara and I with the two instructors. They gave us all the needed instructions before we started, we even had room to practice 😀 and as we kicked it off, we got stuck between rocks due to the low flow of water in the river! Getting the raft to disengage was kind of amusing and bracing ourselves before a fast rapid catches us was even more entertaining. The views around the river as we went through were breathtaking, trees and hills surrounded us and it couldn’t have been any more beautiful. At the end of the rafting and just before we reached the river bank, we came to a flat part of the river where it was safe to swim and that quick swim was highly appreciated as I haven’t had a dip in months.

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The rafting Squad 😀

After rafting, we hit the road again to head to Dalhousie but this time we referred to public transport. The guy from the rafting hut was kind enough to offer us help and wait with us till the right bus came. Sri Lankans are usually curious about female travelers as I noticed specially those traveling solo. And though I wasn’t going solo on that one but nevertheless, the combination of Sara and I grabbed their attention. I’m veiled and she blonde so you can imagine the curiosity. We were always asked if we are married or not, a very popular question by the way, and they literally got shocked when they were told we are not! Traveling single females, hmm! They didn’t seem to digest that thought so well but that didn’t cause us any inconvenience though. On the contrary, everyone was always so kind and helpful.

TIP: if you are a solo female traveler who would worry about being asked whether you are married or not then you might consider wearing a fake wedding ring to save yourself some hassle.

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A bus stop on the road – Central Province

The trip from Kitulgala to Dalhousie included connections. The first leg was from Kitulgala to Hatton, where we got off at the bus stand and were told to ask for the bus to Maskeliya. That part of the hill country was far from being touristy. The streets in Hatton were so chaotic, crowded, unclean, and one can sense the poor living standards in that area. It was part of the Sri Lanka you wouldn’t see in a travel brochure but you would only experience if you have the willingness to do so.

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The bus stand in Hatton

While on the bus, another man got curious about us and as usual that curiosity turned into a conversation, something that already appealed to me by the time. We told him we were off to Dalhousie for Adam’s Peak and that got him even more curious especially regarding me since I’m a Muslim. Adam’s Peak is very popular to Buddhists so he found it a little unusual that a Muslim would want to climb it.

He happened to be taking the bus to Maskeliya as well and that entitled him to feel responsible for us till he got off the bus. He even went through the trouble of calling the hotel to ask for directions so he could instruct the bus driver about where we should get off next. I didn’t manage to catch his name but I will never forget him, his determination to help us was so sincere that it left me feeling overwhelmed. Thank you for your kindness and the turned-out-to-be-very-useful advice about the climb.

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On the road from Ella to Kitulgala – Central Province

One advantage of the bus trip to Maskeliya was driving by the Maussakelle Reservoir, it was scenic that I was mesmerized despite the tiredness that was piling up. We alighted in Maskeliya and had to rush to catch the bus to Dalhousie and that bus dropped us off in front of our accommodation. Just perfect!

Hiking Adam’s Peak was quite an experience, an experience I’m glad I was able to go through. It was tough but yet enjoyable so consequently, I would be delivering my thoughts about it in a separate post 🙂

Curious to know what came next after Adam’s Peak? Wait for it in my 5th and last part of my trip to Sri Lanka 🙂

 

Venturing into Sri Lanka – Part 3

Cancelling the hike wasn’t really a bad thing after all! It offered us more hours of sleep which were needed and came in highly appreciated, and at the same time allowed us to have a chilled start of the day. Though it was gloomy with few drops of rain every now and again that morning, we decided to go for a walk around town after breakfast. We walked towards the downtown along Lake Gregory which came with a background of misty hills that were decorated by colored houses.

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Lake Gregory – Nuwara Eliya

It was calm and quiet during those morning hours which made the walk relaxing and enjoyable. There is nothing much to see in Nuwara Eliya but the famous red brick post office is a must. There is a golf course close to the lake for those who play the game. And if you are up to some local food, cross the street from the fruit market to have an authentic local meal

(TIP: they close at 12 pm.)

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The Post Office – Nuwara Eliya

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A sample of the Sri Lankan street food. That green stuff is called herbal porridge, I didn’t like it that much!! – Nuwara Eliya 

That walk rounded up our short visit to Nuwara Eliya and marked the time to embark on that acclaimed train trip between Kandy and Ella, a trip that was cut shorter by us hopping in from Nuwara Eliya instead of Kandy. So we took our backpacks, my huge one included, and went to the train station with the help of a tuk tuk trying to catch a couple of second class tickets. We managed to get the tickets alright but surprise, surprise, the train was going to be delayed for few hours and there was nothing we can do about it but to comply. Honestly, after what happened to me while going to Scotland last summer, those hours of waiting were totally fine by me! A lesson I learned the hard way that no matter how well I plan my trip, it’s never under control! So I only need to cope and adjust to the new situation because who knows what the new happenings can bring 😉

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The train station which is not in Nuwara Eliya itself but in a town called Nanu-Oya

The train station was nothing fancy! I have never seen wood being used that extensively in a train station, it has few scattered seats, a waiting room for foreigners (!!!), and a waiting room that said Gents with another that said Ladies and even those were categorized according to class! Impressively, they recycle. And strangely, the locals sat at the very end of the station away from us, foreigners.

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A primitive railway platform display – Nanu-Oya Train Station 

Those waiting hours were so sociable, everyone was interactive, we talked about our lives while exchanging travel experience, it was simply great. One of the people Sara and I met during waiting was Susan, an Irish lady who was volunteering in Sri Lanka for a couple of months. She was on the later train so when ours came we said our good byes and left. I felt bad for not taking her number so we could have met in Ella later but it wasn’t such a big deal after all.

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The two platforms train station of Nanu-Oya

With second class tickets on that train trip, you will be lucky if you can find a seat and since we were running low on luck, we couldn’t find any of course!! Now when you stand, and probably you will, you have to claim your spot and hold on to it especially if that spot is by the never closed door which offers the best views. Now, talking about views, it ran all through the trip and the hills were covered in mist so you can imagine the disappointment. It was pretty still but I really hoped for some sun at the time. I stood by the door the whole trip, I couldn’t let go of it, and the scenery was that captivating even when it was covered in fog.

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The scenery along the train trip between Nuwara Eliya and Ella

We reached Ella and the outside of the train station was full of tuk tuk drivers waiting for the train packed with tourists to arrive. It would have been such a rip off to take one to our accommodation so instead, we decided to walk our way through town to find it. And once we left the station and started towards the tiny town, I instantly fell in love with it. Ella was nothing like anything I have seen in Sri Lanka till that moment. It is a backpacker hub, so chilled and laid-back. It possesses this mellow relaxing atmosphere that promptly captures your senses, no wonder I adored it he most.

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The view as seen from the moving train, a hazy picture though! 

It took us a while to find our accommodation as most people didn’t know about the place when we asked them. And by the time we got to the place, my back was aching due to my humongous 15 kg backpack (another epic backpacking failure I guess)! Despite that irrelevant fact, the place was wonderful. It was a wooden cabin amid a small forest of trees with a nice terrace. I felt like living in a jungle with all the chirping, buzzing, and hissing I was hearing. And let me add that the location was just perfect.

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The view while hiking Little Adam’s Peak – Ella

We lay down our backpacks, got changed, and it was time to hit the town for dinner. That was when Susan crossed my mind as I wondered about her and the train she was waiting for. And while I was compiling that thought in my head, there she was sitting in that rotti hut. What a coincidence, right? That shows you how small and cozy Ella is. So, there we were, the three of us having dinner and enjoying the cool evening without previously set plans. Lovely! May I add that the food was delicious? It was. I had chicken rotti for dinner and chocolate rotti for deserts and both were yummy, I’m drawling at the moment 😀 After such a great evening, we wished ourselves sweet dreams and parted to our lodgings agreeing to meet in the morning to spend the day together. WOO HOO.

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The view from the top of Little Adam’s Peak – Ella

We met the following morning at the tourist information desk which acts as the starting point to Little Adam’s Peak. And yes there is a tourist information desk in downtown Ella, they may not speak that much of the English language but they will surely help you in the best way they can. The highlights of Ella are basically Little Adam’s Peak, Ella Rock, The Nine Arches Bridge, and Ravana Falls which can be squeezed all in one day if you are tight on time provided that you have an early start. We did start early but couldn’t get all the locations covered as that day turned out to be the rainiest but merely enjoyable.

(TIP: a couple of national parks are around 2+ hours’ drive from Ella so if you have more time in town you might want to consider one.)

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The happy bunch 😀 

We took it off with Little Adam’s Peak being the shortest hike and we were greeted with foggy landscape. AGAIN! The views from the top were covered by fog, I could have pretended this was some tough summit and I might have gotten away with it 😀 The hike wasn’t tough at all, it was nothing compared to what I experienced doing the Adams’ Peak itself a day later. Besides the rain, it was windy that one might have been blown off the cliff if an umbrella was used. So if you are there and it’s windy, be careful with that umbrella.

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On the way to the Nine Arches Bridge – Ella 

After a tad of disappointment, yeah I was disappointed a little I admit, we descended and went on our way to the Nine Arches Bridge which is close to Little Adam’s, 3 km I think! It was quite difficult to find it from the peak as there was no clear path to follow but we asked around and people were kind enough to guide us. The area has a couple of fancy spas for those who are into a little of scenic pampering. We walked the railway once we found it keeping an ear out for any coming trains. It was still raining by the time we reached the bridge and I was literally soaking wet except for my feet thanks to the waterproof LOWA hiking shoes. I think the amount of rain those shoes experienced in that trip was enough to wear off some of the waterproofing 😦

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The Nine Arches Bridge – Ella 

We heard noises that resembled a helicopter while we were still following the rail in the direction of the bridge; we looked up and couldn’t see anything. Apparently, that noise was the sound an approaching train makes. Luckily the train arrived after we have reached the bridge; unluckily we were at the wrong side of the bridge so we only witnessed the rear of the train as it passed us by. Nonetheless, the bridge is just beautiful, those brick arches with the marks of rain and humidity adding to its eld are things to be seen.

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Following the railway back to town – Ella 

To get back to town, we walked the rail again on the opposite direction and that took us to the town’s train station. Since it was unceasingly rainy and cloudy still, we decided to skip Ella Rock and check the waterfalls instead to wrap up the afternoon. Ella Rock takes around 4 to 5 hours in total, the views I heard are amazing but with the weather we were having that day, it might have been another disappointment. We were told that Ravana Falls are overrated by a fellow tourist while doing Little Adam’s but honestly, it’s not. I found it to be beautiful and didn’t regret checking it out. So if you have the time pay it a visit and instead of walking, which is quite a long one from town, just take the bus. It will drop you off in front of the waterfalls and you can always take a bus from the opposite direction to head back to town.

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Ravana Falls – Ella

It was still early in the afternoon by the time we were back to town and with plenty of time till dinner, we agreed to have a little rest prior to meeting up later for a night out altogether before we go our separate ways the following morning as Sara and I were headed to Sri Pada and Susan was going south to Mirissa. And though I was really hungry, I couldn’t have been any happier with us meeting later because it meant I would finally be able to have some dry clothes on. I was all wet, head to ankles, and was longing for the feeling of being dry. I was ok with the rain, humidity, being constantly wet and a little cold. I coped just fine I guess but I seriously wanted the rain to give us a break. I hoped for a dry night for a change and some time to allow my rain jacket to dry out.

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Passing through 🙂 

We had a recommendation for dinner from a friend who has been to Ella a couple of days before we arrived and that was where we spent the night. The place is called Chill and it’s one of the hot spots in town, it was really crowded but we were super lucky to have found a table right away. For dinner, Sara and I ordered lamprais, a very popular Sri Lankan dish. It consists of curries, a deep fried boiled egg, and rice all wrapped inside a banana leaf. YUMMY! That was super delicious, we devoured the whole thing. Another item on my list of Sri Lankan foods to try was curd, or buffalo curd as they call it, which is a dairy product and considered a dessert. Susan and I ordered one, it came with palm honey and though the texture and taste were quite unusual to me, I found it tasty.

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Dinner at Chill ❤ – Ella

That night was one of the most enjoyable ones I had on that trip, we all had a blast. When I think of it now, it was basically thanks to the unplanned events of a delayed train that allowed us to meet a fellow traveler and spend time with her. I guess not all random unplanned incidents that take place during a trip are bad after all; we just need to embrace all that comes along. Another lesson that keeps on establishing itself, there is ALWAYS a silver lining 🙂

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There was a blackout while having dinner but that didn’t stop us from having a great night ❤ – Ella 

 

So what’s up next? Get to know what comes after Ella in part 4 of my trip to Sri Lanka 🙂

Venturing into Sri Lanka – Part 2

Besides Plonnaruwa, the Sigiriya rock is something not to be missed when doing the Cultural Triangle in the central highlands of Sri Lanka. Its structure is striking, a rock with nearly vertical walls that rises up among a stretch of green with the remains of a fortress on top of it. It’s about 1000+ steps to the top with few staircases that are attached to the wall of the rock in midair. Quite freaky to tell you the truth, be careful acrophobics, I guess I was kind of grateful for the fog that morning.

(TIP: another important part of the triangle will be the city of Anuradhapura which is roughly an hour and a half drive from Dambulla)

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Can you spot the rock? – Sigiriya Rock

That morning was our last in Dambulla and after yet another great breakfast at the guesthouse we were staying at, we bid our generous hosts-who packed us some fruits for the road- goodbye. We had a ride arranged for that day since the plan was to head to Nuwara Eliya afterwards and it wouldn’t have been possible to get that easily accomplished using public transport. The day we went to Sigiriya marked the start of the surprise the weather had for us! It was raining since morning and got heavier as we were about to climb up the rock. The fog was so dense that the rock itself wasn’t visible as we took on the path leading to the staircases and into the top.

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Half way to the top – Sigiriya Rock

The steps were slippery and with some being higher than the others, we had to be extra careful. On the way up, a set of spiral stairs will take you to those mesmerizing frescoes; those intricate wall paintings in bright earthy colors that absolutely astounded me (we weren’t allowed to take pictures unfortunately!). The views along the way up were stunning, they intensified as we reached the top. I was surrounded by this vastness of evergreen, everywhere I looked I saw greenery. The scene was decorated by scattered white dots that accounted for Buddhist temples with prayers floating in the air surrounding the summit. It was so calming that despite being drenched, I was unruffled. I kept on thinking, if it was that beautiful in such miserable weather, how it would be if the sun was illuminating the horizon?

(TIP: Sigiriya can be a good location for watching the sunrise. Another less famous spot in the area will be the Pidurangala Rock.)

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The view from the top – Sigiriya Rock

We needed to change our soaking clothes by the time we were down and despite being in a dry outfit; I was still shivering over my wet scarf!! As we continued on our way to Nuwara Eliya afterwards, we asked our driver if we can make a quick stop at a spice garden. We did and oh boy that turned out to be interesting 😀 The tour didn’t only include introducing us to lots of spices, herbs and their uses, but it also comprised a free massage and consultation from the herbal doctor. The “doctor” claims he can know all about your health by measuring your pulse, his services are optional and free of charge. That sounded eccentric so I thought why not!! In addition to measuring my pulse, the doctor asked me loads of questions. So he must get down to something eventually, right? His diagnosis of my physical and psychological health was interesting! He talked about lots of organs that I need to get “cleaned” including my spleen. He wrote a very long and detailed prescription full of those herbs that I’m supposed to use for a few months. I wasn’t forced to buy any but the overall sum was ridiculous.

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The Lion’s Paws which represent the entrance of the Lion Gate and the last stretch of stairs to the top – Sigiriya Rock

The doctor saved the best for last; beauty! I think I didn’t measure up to his standards of beauty and that encouraged him to bring up the subject of losing weight so I would become prettier. Don’t all women want to be pretty he asked! Not that I’m not one, he then implied! PHEW!! Well, weight is a very subjective matter in my opinion and being overweight doesn’t mean that one is any less beautiful so excuse me if I didn’t fall for this. I read a quote online that says “to be beautiful means to live confidently in your own skin” and I totally believe in this. So what matters is to be truly at peace with myself whether that falls under anyone’s definition of peace or not.

Before concluding the consultation, the guy gave me his email and number and told me I can contact him only in my darkest moments when I need to talk to someone who is not family nor a friend!! He stressed the point of not contacting him when I’m happy, only when I’m miserable!! Not sure if I would want to do that thank you very much!

(TIP: while I was searching something for this post I came upon those TripAdvisor reviews about one spice garden and guess what? It is the one we stopped at and the reviews were not encouraging, so you may want to be careful if that’s the garden you are visiting. To be honest, nothing really happened. They just kept on stalling us to try things and we ended up wasting a good couple of hours. My friend bought some spices and she said they were old. I bought the tea we sampled and it wasn’t the same!! So, nothing major!)

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Vanilla tree – The Spice Garden

After that unusual affair, we continued on our way to Nuwara Eliya. We were already driving through the hill country of Central Province over cliff roads surrounded by tea plantations and greenery that was interrupted by occasional waterfalls. The scenery around the hill country was notable. It did remind me of the Scottish Highlands but still, it wasn’t really similar to the evergreen I have seen in Scotland. It was wild and flirtatious with those long legged trees, unlike the more dignified British counterparts. Driving by all those tea plantations, we asked our driver if we can stop at one. Guess what? We made a stop at a Scottish tea factory just on time for afternoon tea. The factory tour took us through the process of making tea and introduced us to the different kinds of tea leaves and what can be made out of each one. We took a quick walk among tea trees and sampled some of the tea produced by the factory. We didn’t catch the workers picking up the leaves unfortunately as it was after working hours when we had the tour. Nonetheless, it was nice and informative.

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A 194 years old tea machine – Glenloch Tea Factory

We were told by our driver that some areas are segregated according to faith but as we drove by that specific neighborhood in Central Province, we passed a mosque, a Buddhist temple, and a Hindu temple all next to one another. Talking about cultural and religion diversity here, I wondered if the people living in that area were at peace with one another. And if the humble people of Sri Lanka were able to accomplish such harmony despite all the differences, then why the rest of the world is still having acceptance problems?! Wouldn’t it be easier to accept instead of reject and decline?

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The architecture of mosques in Sri Lanka is entirely different than the Middle East – Central Province

We reached our final destination after sunset but even the dark couldn’t hide how beautiful Nuwara Eliya was. It was so colonial that I couldn’t believe I was still in Sri Lanka, our driver told us locals call it Little England and you could actually tell why once you set eyes on it.

Our accommodation in Nuwara Eliya was yet at another guesthouse that was absolutely lovely. The place overlooks Lake Gregory; it has an outside garden with trees and flower creepers everywhere, and rooms that are unusually decorated with bright colors. Our room was purple and came with butterfly decorations. The host was an extremely helpful and nice guy. I consulted him about the Horton Plains hike we were planning on doing in the morning and he was so patient with me because I literally asked him a good deal of questions about that one and what was to come afterwards throughout our trip.

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The view along the way to Nuwara Eliya – Central Province

Weather strike number two that day, we had to cancel that hike! The Horton Plains is a hike that is advisably done at sunrise and that requires a very early start of the day. The weather forecast said rainy and cold so we had to abort it. Surprisingly, the meticulous and planned self was totally fine with that conclusion! I didn’t want to be wet and cold and end up not being able to see the sun rising nor enjoy the stunning views of World’s End, so accepting that fact was the right thing to do. By the time we were in town, it was too late to have dinner at the guesthouse but our kind host recommended a nearby Indian restaurant. I think that was the best dinner I had during the whole trip. The food was mouthwatering and Sara and I went into this laughing frenzy, it could have been the spices maybe! We literally laughed our hearts out; it was such a warming ending to a great day.

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Our dinner at Indian Summer Restaurant – Nuwara Eliya

 

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Wet but smiling 🙂 – Sigiriya Rock

What’s next after cancelling our planned hike? Find that one out in the upcoming part of my trip to Sri Lanka 😉

Venturing into Sri Lanka – Part 1

Technically, I have been living in Asia since I moved to Kuwait nearly two years ago but it never felt like the Asia I have always had in mind, maybe because it’s part of the Middle East! When I think of that continent, I picture coconut trees, tropical fruits, the ocean, islands, forests, and temples. So anything else is not considered Asia in my dictionary!! I know this defies all geographical concepts but this is how it is with me and that big chunk of a continent.

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A tuk tuk and a vispa, very popular means of transport in Sri Lanka

The semester break (another overdue post!) was at the doors and of course, I had to spend it somewhere. So instead of flying to Europe as I usually did, I decided to cross over to “Asia”. This time, I was looking for a country directly connected to Kuwait and honestly, that didn’t leave me with much options to choose from. And I ended up having my mind set on that island south of India, the island that goes by the name of Sri Lanka. With direct flights from where I’m and an easily obtained online visa, that was the perfect combo at the time.

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The Golden Temple – Dambulla

That was my first time to journey to that side of the continent, an entirely new territory for me. I was kind of clueless and at the same time quite reluctant to venture solo especially that Sri Lanka (unfortunately) has a reputation of being a little unfriendly to female solo travelers. And while my decision was still up in the air, a friend from work asked to join and I said hop on, let’s get this trip up and running.

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Outside the Cave Temple – Dambulla

I have been a solitary traveler for a while now so when Sara went on board, I honestly was both excited and concerned. I was thrilled to be sharing the trip with someone else but myself, somebody who will relate to all the inside jokes for instance and oh boy, those were abundant. Honeymoon 😀 At the same time, I was a little anxious because it has been a while since I traveled with company. I was always the force behind all my decisions and I really couldn’t have pulled that attitude off on that trip having someone else’s preferences to consider. I wasn’t sure how I would deal with that but the trip had to be jointly planned.

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The view around the Cave Temple – Dambulla

It was a little hectic sometimes trying to meet up to get the trip planned accommodating everything we both wanted but eventually that went by perfectly well and we ended up having a blast. We faced a little hiccup though when we discovered a week or so before traveling that I won’t be allowed in inside any Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka because of my headscarf. As according to the Sri Lankan Buddhist customs, you need to uncover your head and be barefoot when entering a temple. And since I’m a veiled Muslim, I will be denied entrance and that discovery puzzled us! Our visit to Kandy where the major site in town is the temple of the Sacred Tooth will be inconvenient to only me!

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Yes, that’s correct. Elephant dung is recycled to make paper 😀

I thought we could split up for a day or two but Sara was ok with the idea of skipping Kandy altogether and so we did. The plan got shuffled, Kandy was skipped, and instead of spending our first night in Colombo, we went straight ahead to Dambulla passing by the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage on the way.

We had quite a smooth start flying from Kuwait and all. For that day, we arranged for an airport pick up with our accommodation in Dambulla. So we landed, got stamped, claimed our luggage, then took off from the airport and went on our way to the orphanage.

(TIP: applying for an online visa can save you some waiting time queuing to pay for a visa before heading to the passport control officer and it’s cheaper. My friend paid double the amount I paid on the online visa!)

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Look at this cutie ❤ – Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

Though it was still early morning, we were welcomed by the heat and humidity once we stepped outside the airport. But the car’s AC and scenery along the road helped fade all those sticky feelings away. There were coconut trees and greenery everywhere. The sides of the road were crammed with humble one story houses and small shops. The roads were chaotic and bogging and to most people, I would imagine, the adjustment to such a notion can be difficult. But coming from Egypt where we have similar characteristics in some areas of the country, that scene wasn’t new to my eye. And in my humble opinion, that disarray is simply one part of the whole experience. There is a certain level of beauty in all that clutter and only an unwonted eye can see amid the rubble to unveil what’s hidden underneath. One has to just look more closely I guess!

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The river side of the orphanage

The elephant orphanage didn’t really appeal to me to tell you the truth. Feeding the elephants would have been interesting but unfortunately we missed it by the time we were there. It’s kind of a small property with elephants roaming around in a contained manner. The thing I liked the most during the visit was being able to watch them bathing in the nearby river. A couple of elephants were chained while bathing and I wondered if this is an orphanage, why chain the poor animals? I would suggest skipping the orphanage, unless you really want to touch an elephant, and instead go on a safari where you can actually see wild elephants grazing. Now THAT was much more enjoyable 🙂

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Shower time 😀

Our driver was a really nice guy. We bombarded him with tons of questions about the places we will be going to making sure we got everything right but most importantly, we inquired about the must try local food and he replied back with a list. Such a great help he was. After the orphanage, he drove us to our accommodation in Dambulla which turned out to be an amazing place. It was a family run homestay in a quiet area with a perfect location, the town’s main street and bus station were a short walk away and the famous Cave Temple was roughly 3 km down the road.

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Second thoughts on coconut water!

The host, Daniel, was just amazing. He provided us with some local final touches to our itinerary, helped in arranging a safari trip for the next day, and surprisingly took it upon himself when he knew I was denied entry at the temple earlier that evening. Before Sara and I went to the temple, I had a small talk with him and mentioned what I came to know regarding the issue. He assured me that it’s fine and that I won’t have a problem getting in since Sri Lanka has a Muslim community already. So when I told him later that I wasn’t allowed in, he got so upset and promised to inquire about the incident and even report it to mayor! I heard that and felt like, Uh Oh, did I just start a cultural conflict?! The guy at the entrance to the temple was actually rude and he dismissed me in quite a disgraceful way even when I tried to explain that I meant no disrespect with the veil and it’s only because of my faith that my head is covered. Nonetheless, he wasn’t willing to debate and kept on shooing me off with his hands. That was far from being nice and it left me feeling terrible because for the first time ever, my veil was causing me an issue!! So after such mishap, Daniel’s reaction was overwhelming and comforting.

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Polonnaruwa

We woke up the following day to nice weather after such a rainy evening the previous night. And may I say that that day was the best weather we had during the whole week? Indeed it was THE best weather we had during the whole week! Now January is supposed to be one of the best months to visit Sri Lanka since it’s still the dry season except for a few rainy days and what are a few rainy days? No biggie, right? Well, we were in for a little surprise regarding the weather as we came to know later.

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Inside a Sri Lankan bus 😀

After a hearty breakfast, our host gave us a ride in his tuk tuk to the bus station where we were to take the bus to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. Our first encounter with public transportation, YAY! Going around Sri Lanka using public transport is really cheap and can save you a lot but you need to be patient and tolerant because it’s quite hectic. For starters, the drivers drive like crazy. I thought microbus drivers in Egypt are crazy but to Sri Lankans, there is a whole new level of it. The roads are narrow and winding especially in the hill country and with their speed and competitiveness to take over one another you would need to have the guts for it. Also, it’s not always guaranteed that you will find a seat in the bus and you might need to stand for a while or maybe till your final destination. One thing is for sure, people won’t stop getting on a bus, or even a train, just because it’s crowded! No sir, they will keep on squeezing in so be ready to get sandwiched.

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The ruins of a Buddhist temple – The archaeological site of Polonnaruwa

Don’t be alarmed by all that daftness as it’s quite an experience. You wouldn’t believe how kind the locals can be, they would offer you help just like that without you even asking for it. On our way back to Dambulla that day, there was that old lady who insisted on offering me her seat and when I politely declined she offered to hold my backpack. She did that without a word of English but with such sincerity that I was so humbled by her kindness. She would leave me standing there for a while then offer me her seat again, and again till she finally went off the bus. In a world where most youngsters won’t even consider offering their seats to elders, that incident left me speechless.

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The only temple I was able to enter because there was no one at the door to send me away!! – The archaeological site of Polonnaruwa

By the time we arrived to our destination, the sun was in full bloom and the weather was just perfect. The bus stop is just a few steps away from the ticket office which acts as the starting point of the archaeological site with a small museum that can be checked before heading to the ancient ruins. The archaeological site of Polonnaruwa is huge and while you can choose to walk or take any kind of a ride, we decided to tour it on bikes and I personally believe that was the best way to do it, we absolutely loved it. Renting a bike for those few hours won’t be a problem, there are plenty of rentals to choose from. We paid 400 rupees each and I had no idea if this was a good deal or not, it’s kind of hard to figure those things out in Sri Lanka considering how cheap the currency is compared to US dollars for instance.

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Another Buddhist temple –  The archaeological site of Polonnaruwa

The ancient site was stunning and despite the fact that I went through another unpleasant encounter at the entrance of one of the temples on the site, I had such a wonderful morning biking the premises. Cycling from one spot to another marveling at the beauty of the decaying ruins while sun rays beamed from among tree branches felt so peaceful and serene. There is a special kind of splendor in ruins that I always find captivating and the ones in Plonnaruwa didn’t disappoint.

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The remains of another Buddhist temple – The archaeological site of Polonnaruwa

After such a delightful morning and some delicious chop suey vegetables with fried rice for lunch, it was time for my first safari ever! HURRAY! We met with our safari guide, Manjula, and went off to the Minneriya National Park. With an open roof jeep and the afternoon sun beaming in, we were ready to take off on our tour and we had quite a start. The visit to the park starts with a roughly 45 minutes drive through a dirt road lined with trees, some of them were huge tall bamboo trees, and around 20 minutes or so through the drive we found ourselves in a pickle! A fellow jeep was stuck in mud while crossing a tiny waterway to continue on the road and into the park. Unluckily, all the driver’s efforts to get the jeep out were in vain as the machine kept on sinking deeper and deeper into the thick mud. Such a bummer, yeah? Actually, it wasn’t. Well yeah that incident caused the “traffic” to congest but witnessing the collaborative efforts of everyone, including a few tourists, to get that jeep out of the mud was such a nice act.

(TIP: Kaudulla National Park is another option. It’s a little further down the road from Minneriya and slightly more expensive because of that but the price difference is not huge! Minneriya is more popular.)

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Get me out of here! Jungle traffic 😀

It took about half an hour and 6 failed attempts to get it off the mud and clear the road to the line of awaiting jeeps. A short distance afterwards the road cleared up to this vast stretch of land that is the national park and I just went WOW! The winding dirt road finally gave way to that clearing of green and blue. There was that big lake surrounded by all sorts of green with birds flying over and a collection of trees decorating the background, I have never seen anything like that before. Minneriya is famous for wild elephants and as we drove around the lake to see more of the park, we kept an eye out for them.

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Wild elephants – Minneriya National Park

It wasn’t hard to spot them after all since all jeeps would stop and spectate at the parade of wild elephants. It was a much more exciting sight than the orphanage, it felt more natural watching the elephants grazing in their own habitat. Our guide told us he spotted a Sri Lankan leopard before but unfortunately we were not that lucky. But leopards or not, the safari was so enjoyable though it was kind of crowded. We wrapped it up a little before 6 pm which is the closing time of the park, and were greeted goodbye by pink cotton candy sunset skies ❤ And that everybody, was the only sunset I witnessed throughout the whole trip as the weather turned its back on us from that day on 😀

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Wild elephants taking a dip (the only time when the zoom lens would be handy and I don’t bring it!)- Minneriya National Park

One of the greatest benefits of traveling with somebody is never forgetting to eat! I have the habit of getting caught up in the moment while traveling solo skipping the eating segment completely!! Luckily this time, I had Sara to remind me that we needed to put some food into our systems. After the safari, we were in for some rice and curry for dinner and Manjula dropped us off at a place he recommended. He even offered to drive us back to Habarana afterwards so we can pick up the bus back to Dambulla. Manjula, thanks a lot for everything. Back to the rice and curry, it was super delish, we devoured everything, except those spicy dishes though!! The people at the restaurant were so kind, they made sure we didn’t need anything and since we had to decline Manjula’s offer to drive us to town, they insisted on sending someone to wait with us till we take the “right” bus back as it happens that it actually passes by just outside the restaurant. The amount of kindness I received from the locals in the course of one day left me with a profound humbling feeling.

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With our guide Manjula during the safari – Minneriya National Park

Are you doing the cultural triangle? Yeah?  Plonnaruwa is only one part of it, stay tuned for more 😉

 

Traveling Solo: Second Edition

So last April on yet another short break, I decided to travel. Typical! And since I only had 5 days, it had to be somewhere close and visa-hassle free and I decided on a nearby country that I have always wanted to visit; Jordan. I was finally going to see Petra, hurray!!

Now 5 days don’t do Jordan justice but they were all I had and I needed to make full use of them. I searched here and there and got everything settled, I even bought myself a Jordan Pass just to discover later that I didn’t actually need one since I’m an Egyptian. So yes Egyptians, and Arabs as well I was told, are entitled for a free of charge 30 days entry, just head straight to the Jordanian section of passport control at the airport (if you are an Arab holding a foreign passport you will need to pay for the visa). Another cool thing that I also discovered later is that while sightseeing, I get to pay as a Jordanian. I ended up paying so little at all sights and the one day ticket to Petra cost me 1 JD instead of 50. Sorry folks! Well yeah I saved those 50 dinars but ended up paying them for a certified guide, ha ha, was totally worth it though.

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The Dead Sea – Jordan

Now, for such a short break, I shouldn’t be needing much luggage I thought. Consequently I replaced my suitcase with a backpack. I have never backpacked before and the idea seemed so appealing at the time that I totally went for it. It was inevitable anyway, I would have to do it sooner or later so why not now. I went shopping for one and got the biggest backpack I found at the shop (90 L), thinking the bigger size the better, right? Thank God I did 😀 I do pack light don’t get me wrong but being veiled doesn’t make packing any easier since everything tends to take more space. And though I really did pack light, taking only the necessary stuff, the 15 k-backpack looked gigantic. People would give me looks of sympathy at the sight of it hanging over my back and would ask me what I have inside! That incident reminded me of Wild, the book/movie, when Cheryl used to call her backpack monster. You can say that mine was monster’s baby sister 😀

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Is it an epic fail 😦

When I arrived in Amman early morning I had few hours till check in time at the hotel and I used those hours to take a quick trip to the Dead Sea which is about two hours away from the capital. The Dead Sea is simply remarkable, it’s earth’s lowest elevation, the deepest and saltiest waterbody in the world, and absolutely worth the visit. The floating experience, if you haven’t done it before, is something to look for. And of course you must treat yourself with one of those mud masks to relish in their medicinal benefits.

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The Castle in Amman

I only had that day for Amman so once I checked in, I went straight out to walk around the downtown area where I was staying. My starting point was the Roman Theatre which was just across the street from the hotel. The presence of this antique in the midst of modern-day buildings and paved streets is significant. You walk inside, climb a step or two, and you surpass the daily hustle and bustle into history. What a feeling! For the few remaining hours I had till sunset, I took myself to the castle which is another great place to visit. The remains of it lay on a high point in town and the views of the city from up there with those Roman columns decorating them are extraordinary. After all that walking, I treated myself to an oven hot konafa from Habibah, the thought of it now leaves me drawling 😀 yummy!!

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The Roman Theater in Amman

The highlight of that trip was actually visiting Petra, I had it on my bucket list for quite a very long time and I was so happy to be finally there. The site is just huge, you can’t cover it all in one visit and there is actually a 3-days ticket to the Rose City. Petra was the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom and can be accessed via walking through a canyon called Al Siq. The entire city was carved into rose colored sandstone cliffs hence the name; Rose City. It’s so impressive how those huge and beautifully designed temples and tombs were carved so precisely at times where only primitive techniques and tools were used. The first sight of the treasury nearly to the end of the Siq took my breath away, I was so mesmerized by its presence that I was left in awe.

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The Treasury – Petra

I started my visit around noon with approximately 6 to 7 hours before the site closes at sunset and have decided to go for the most visited, main trail. I thought I would do the main trail, which took me through the Siq to the treasury and ended up at the Girl’s Palace, then try to do something else if time allowed it afterwards. This time, I had my mind set on hiring a certified guide (learning from a mistake I did few years back in Pompeii). It was my first time to go on a somehow guided tour for a historic sight but it was totally worth it. I was lucky enough to have a native, an actual Nabatean, as my guide who was so informative and made my visit so enjoyable. I had few hours left until sunset by the time I was finished with the main trail and for those remaining hours I went up to the monastery or Ad Deir following the suggestion of the guide and the Visit Petra people, who by the way were very helpful with their prompt replies/recommendations. Ad Deir is the smaller version of the treasury façade/size-wise but it wasn’t less impressive. And the “climb” up there was scenic. Yes climb because you would actually need to go over a couple of hundred steps to reach the place.

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If you made it all the way up to Ad Deir, just go a little further up the hill to the “best view” point and you will be rewarded by this view ❤

I was really tired by the time I started wrapping my visit up but nonetheless, I walked myself through the Colonnaded Street and paid the church a visit before finally leaving the premises. The main church in Petra has those marvelous well preserved mosaic floors that can’t be missed. When I reached the treasury on my way back to the visitor center, the spot was quieter and the sun wasn’t shining from the back of the façade unlike in the afternoon when I first laid my eyes on it and with those colors, the treasury felt more captivating. So I sat on a bench, resting, and at the same time staring at it while marveling at its beauty and greatness.

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Ad Deir – Petra

I have decided in advance to spend that night in Petra, which happens to be the name of the town as well, because for one, I wanted to go to Petra at night and for two, I wanted to go to Wadi Rum which is much closer to Petra than to Amman. And although I was worn out after all the walking and the 5 hours bus trip in the morning from Amman to Petra, I had to overcome the tiredness to walk myself back to my night’s accommodation for dinner before compelling myself to walk all the way through the Siq again in order to witness the treasury when being lit by over 1500 candles. One word, spectacular!

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Saying good bye to my host before heading to Wadi Rum – Petra

The accommodation I had in Petra was recommended to me by the agency I contacted to organize the Wadi Rum visit and it was just fantastic. The place is actually a villa turned into a B&B that is run by a Dutch lady named Jolanda who happens to be very hospitable and an excellent cook. My room had views of Wadi Musa from its balcony and was spacious and very comfortable. The dinner I had that night was super delicious, one of the best meals I have ever had and Jolanda was kind enough to arrange for a taxi to take me back to Petra for the night show since I was already walking funny after I came back from the morning visit. I was heading to Wadi Rum early next morning and she made sure that I have breakfast before the bus takes me to the wadi to meet with my guide. It was such a nice short stay, it felt like staying at a friend or a relative and as always, I wished I had the time to stay longer!

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Wadi Rum ❤

I came across the agency I hired for the Wadi Rum tour through TripAdvisor, they came highly recommended and they lived up to it. I had a funny incident with those guys while booking the tour because since I was traveling solo, I didn’t want to end up being on my own with the guide camping in the desert. It would have been so awkward and inconvenient I have to admit! So I asked to join a group and they told me that there was only this family who signed up to the same trip at the same day but they will need to check with them first if they won’t mind having me on board. And so I joined the family for the day and the night camp with no expectations on how they will be and they turned out to be such a cool and fun family. Thank God 😀 hahahaha (just kidding, I know you will be reading this guys :D) I just had a blast with those fellas and literally laughed my heart out over their jokes. It was such a pleasure to get to know them. My future family must be as cool as that one is 😀 hahahaha

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With the gorgeous family and our very nice and kind guide Habis – Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum was unreal, the reddish sands and hills were incredible; no wonder The Martian was filmed there. The vastness of the wadi with the unusual sand colors and scattered greenery were imaginary. It somehow reminded me of South Sinai but only through a different palette of colors. I have not realized how much I have missed camping until that night, the Bedouin food and tea under a sky full of stars ❤ Simply and utterly wonderful.

After an amazing night camp and a peaceful morning, I had to say good bye to those lovely people as I was driven to Aqaba to catch the bus back to Amman. I was dead tired by the time I arrived at the hotel in Amman, the same one where I spent my first night. I was in a bad need of a shower and a good rest but I also needed to get some food into my system so I forced myself to postpone sleeping for few hours till I get something to eat and Rainbow street was a good choice with a wide selection of cafes and restaurants.

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Ajloun Castle which is built on a hilltop of Jabal Ajloun offers stunning views of the surrounding area but unlucky us, it wasn’t the perfect weather for such view – Ajloun

For the last day before leaving Jordan, I signed up for a day tour to Um Qais, Ajloun Castle, and Jerash with the hotel I was staying at, most hotels organize such trips for their guests in case you are wondering. I was joined by Lux from Argentina and Allan from Indonesia for the day, more company to enjoy. I must give it up to Allan here, he has such a big appetite for life and he is a living proof that it’s never too late and one is never too old to start doing what one loves or to even enjoy life. So please, don’t bother about the number that is your age and just live. It was great spending the day with the two of them, it’s always fun to get to know new people while traveling and in that trip, I came to know more people than I thought I will.

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Um Qais is a town in north Jordan, it offers panoramic views of the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. It was cloudy when we visited unfortunately but it was quite enjoyable nonetheless.

The best part of that tour was Jerash I have to admit so if you don’t have the time for the 3 of them just go straight there. It was so gloomy and a little rainy all through the day unfortunately which made the views from Um Qais and up the castle in Ajloun not that perfect but the sun finally welcomed us by the time we were at Jerash. Jerash was just mesmerizing, the architecture was stunning and the views of the modern city as seen from inside the historical sight made such an interesting mixture between the old and the new; it’s truly “Pompeii of the East”.

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Jerash ❤

That tour was the wrap up to my short trip to beautiful Jordan, I just had to go for one last konafa before leaving Amman though 😀 My second solo traveling experience turned out to be richer than I thought it would be. I was hardly on my own throughout the trip unlike my first solo encounter where I was completely enjoying my solitude. I got to know lots of awesome people during those days I spent in Jordan and I had such great times with them.

They were people to learn from, people who enabled me to experience more of myself, what I’m and what I want to be. Some of the most interesting encounters I had with locals while traveling were during that trip as Jordanians were quite curious about me, a Middle Eastern female who is veiled and travels solo. I was always approached and asked where I’m from and most of the times, talked to in English because for some reason they didn’t think of me as Middle Eastern and the best encounters were the ones I had in Petra with the Bedouins, who spoke perfect English by the way. I went on that trip last April but it feels like it was yesterday. Jordan was one of the top countries on my list, I’m glad I was able to finally pay it a visit but I can’t really say it got crossed off my list as I’m definitely sure that I will be visiting again. Till next time Jordan ❤

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At the top of one of the Roman Theaters in Jerash ❤

 

 

 

Road Trippin’ in Scotland – To Conclude

So today my Highlands road trip comes to an end as I head to Edinburgh then back to London. I woke up early that morning and it was so peaceful in the campsite, everyone was either still asleep or went out already. I walked around to have a look at the place in day light before I take off, and it’s truly a wonderful site and my extremely short stay didn’t do it justice but hopefully there will be a next time.

I had ran into a nearby fish and chip place the other night so I passed by for a quick breakfast before hitting the road. I had roughly a little less than two hours of driving till I get to the airport in Edinburgh and since I started really early that day and had more time than I needed, I decided to take it slow and marvel at the landscape in the Loch Lomond Park while driving through. There was absolutely no need to rush myself this time.

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I was driving through the Loch Lomond Park in the early morning and when I passed by the loch I was mesmerized by those reflections of green ❤

So I put on some nice music and drove calmly by those serene morning sceneries enjoying the melodic sedative feelings that were besieging me that day. I can’t really remember what I was listening to that morning but I have always enjoyed singing out loud to whatever music I had on. I enjoyed my weird and epic playlists as my sister calls them and have to admit that Coldplay played a major role in those playlists 😀

Oh God it was so peaceful and quiet that morning which made it all so surreal and I felt heartbroken to be leaving! Ultimately, I reached the airport, dropped off my red Fiat 500x, and headed to Edinburgh to enjoy the few hours I had before the train took me back to London for the weekend. Edinburgh couldn’t have been any more welcoming, it was sunny and beautiful when I arrived. I walked around, had some food, and enjoyed some really good live rock/bagpipe music. I felt really bad that day when I was driving out of Skye and now that I was leaving Scotland, the feeling was immense. I guess it means that I had such a blast and that’s basically the whole idea, right?! Great times are bound to come to an end, they can’t last forever but they are indeed curved into our memories till the end of time.

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Why ask someone to take a picture when you can take a selfie 😀 – Edinburgh 

What a trip that one was and it wasn’t only because of the new places I have seen or what I have done but also because of how it remolded my personality. My first hostel experience when I was in London a couple of weeks earlier wasn’t that great! It left me feeling utterly out of place and for the first time ever I wasn’t at all comfortable about my veil, I got concerned about performing my daily prayers in the room that I didn’t pray at all during the whole trip! That felt so bad I have to say, being forced to skip prayers so it won’t get any more awkward! The experience in Scotland was the total opposite, all my hostel stays were great, the people were super nice and accepting and though I didn’t feel comfortable enough to pray in the room still, but being treated without prejudice helped shake off the feeling of not belonging.

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I ran into this tiny waterfall on the way to the Old Man of Storr – Skye

One of the best encounters I had that time was during my second night in Edinburgh. I was moved into a long stay female dorm where an Argentinian opened the door for me and once she saw me she asked where I come from and seeing me veiled and everything she told me oh God I have lots of stuff to ask you about. I was so tired that night wanting to sleep badly, but we ended up talking for almost two hours discussing religion, points of view, and how everyone of us saw things from a different perspective. It got even more interesting when an Algerian-French lady joined the conversation.

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My road companion 😀

It was such a great opportunity to clarify some misconceptions about Muslims and Islam. To show that not all of us are the extremists who are talked about in the media and that most of us are as normal as anyone else but dressed differently.

That encounter was a good exercise to learn how to cope and accept our differences. It surely strengthened my conviction in myself, who I’m, and what I stand for and that one should always seek acceptance instead of feeling apologetic about oneself as a person just because of being different. Isn’t this how it’s supposed to be in the first place? To be received and accepted as human beings for who we are with disregard to race, skin color, and religion. We should be appreciated for our own ideals, intellect and characters because this is what a person is all about and nothing else.

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Scott Monument – Edinburgh 

The obstacles I went through during my first day, though they kind of broke me down a little, but they also toughened me up to a great extent. I was able to think my new situation over and find a solution to the mess that has happened in spite of how gloomy I felt back then. That was a very important lesson to learn, to know how to turn things around and always being able to see that break in the clouds.

A few years ago, I had a very serious car accident while driving back to Cairo from the North Coast on the highway. I didn’t get injured physically but psychologically I always faced insecurities when it came to driving on highways or even going past a certain speeding limit. It took me a year to have the courage to drive my car again on that same highway or even to be confident enough while driving through the city. Going on that road trip melted away all the self-doubt I still had buried inside of me due to that accident. For the first time I was driving a car other than mine, worried only about traffic rules and not being in a different car. I felt more confident to press that gas paddle a little, and get rid of the fear of going over a 100 km per hour! And though I acted all girly sometimes asking for help every now and again, those long drives were a great factor in strengthening my grit.

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Eilean Donan Castle  

I can keep going on and on about the returns of this trip forever, all the encounters, great conversations and the awesome people I met along the way made it all so special. Wrapping it up here is causing me tremendous nostalgia. It was one of the greatest trips I have ever had, a trip that caused me a severe case of post vacation blues 😀 I can’t curb the urge to go back to Scotland, to re-familiarize myself with what I have come to know by now and to discover that that is still unknown. But above all, I can’t wait for my next road trip 🙂

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On my way to Storr – Skye